The Freelance Mentalists.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
  Postcard From Brussels


The eastern side of the ring of boulevards that encircle the Brussels center
is less of a matter of uphill vs. downhill than that of one long, genial tilt.
This applies analogously to the city's contemporary art scene where, rather
than ideology, Uptown and Downtown are considered more a question of rent,
altitude, and how much one feels the need to be close to the ever-glittering,
perennially posh Avenue Louise area. “It's all the same scene,” says Sébastien
Janssen, of Galerie Rodolphe Janssen. “It takes 10 minutes to get downtown by
car if you know the way.”

Thus, while one may see the work of Jan van Imschoot, to be shown at
Baronian-Francey's gallery during artbrussels2006, as being rooted in Flemish and
Spanish painting traditions and exhibiting a decidedly Uptown flavour, Mathias
Schaufler's delightfully fabular oils, downtown at dépendance, may be approached
in the same spirit.
artbrussels2006, whose 32,000 visitors will converge on the Brussels Expo
center for four days beginning April 20, is intended to fill a crying need in a
city where the museum establishment gives short shrift to contemporary art.
Moreover, in the same way that Brussels positions itself as the smallest and most
affordable European capital, the art fair's organizers hope to stimulate
canny Belgian collectors with an appealing price range of 1,000 to 100,000 euro.

According to Albert Baronian, one of two Brussels gallerists on the fair's
nine-member International Selection Committee, “If the world of art fairs is
football, divided into Division One and Division Two, then Brussels is the best
of Division Two.” Fair Exhibition Director Karen Renders concurs but adds,
“That's true if we assume that there are only four teams in Division One!” As
artbrussels' Unique Selling Proposition, both of them cite the fair's spirit of
familiarity, openness to new talent, and just the right proportion of Belgian
artists on view (roughly 25% of the total). And since the process of presenting
anywhere between 5 and 15 artists in a single 25-square-meter exhibition
booth may result in more of a mix-and-match feel than of unity and cohesion, when
seeking out exciting new developments one must give equal time to the various
exhibitors' galleries.

For example: Xavier Hufgens, former member of the fair's Selection Committee
and cited as a bellwether by many of his colleagues, will be showing the
disquieting photo(sur)realistic paintings of Cris Brodahl, a Belgian, while the
Taché-Lévy Gallery promises to provoke with the beguiling work of Sandrine
Pelletier. And on the one hand, in her exhibition booth equally high-profile
Catherine Bastide will feature Janaina Tschäpe's dreamlike photographic explorations
of the human body within its contexts, alongside Catherine Sullivan's
theatre-derived photos and Belgian Monique van Genderen's spare, elegant Klee-like
drawings. On the other hand, in her gallery Bastide will host the obsessively
fecund Josh Smith and his gleefully trashy oil-and-collage paintings, presumably
to include several more visual remixes of his name.

Galerie Meert Rihoux, which most recently presented the latest and greatest
of John Baldessari's recent oeuvre (monocolour tinted movie stills accompanied
by lists of applicable adjectives), has scheduled the intriguing juxtaposition
of two sets of photographs: Thomas Struth's vast urban structures and spaces
with Louise Lawler's wry constructions, in which the settings of familiar
objects and images comment on underlying strategies and contexts.

Those who have already made the move uptown claim that as of around 1999,
that became the new growth trend. However, those who remain down below in the
St.Catherine district, which extends west from the church of that name to the
canal, point out that hardly a week goes by without a new night shop, call shop,
restaurant, or art gallery springing up somewhere around Rue Antoine Dansaert.
Any responsible tour of art in the neighborhood would also have to include
Crown Gallery; Erna Hécey; the Contemporary Center for Non-Objective Art (with
their au courant audio installation series); the Galerie les filles du
calvaire, located in the venerable Kanal 20 complex; and Jan Mot, who has recently
devoted much attention to Spanish expat and current Brussels resident Dora Garcia
and her installations and performances.

The Alice Gallery, who recently celebrated their first anniversary, add a
particularly Belgian approach to the downtown scene. For one thing, in a nation
of two peoples and a city of two languages, they see no reason why Brussels
shouldn't have two galleries of the same name – and cheerfully create confusion
with far more established Alice Day. In the case of the young upstarts, the
name isn't even that of a person, but an acronym for “Artists Living In Constant
Elevation” (presumably their mission statement). Moreover, in an instance of
the same good-natured self-defeatism by which the Galerie Rodolphe Janssen
recently opened a view-only 'vitrine' space downtown and called it “Sorry We're
Closed”, Alice have largely escaped the notice of their older competitors by
locating their exhibition space behind their store, which offers not only a hip
selection of books, but T-shirts and street wear. The visitor is thus faced
with an interesting paradox: in order to reach the underground, activist,
would-be non-commercial art, one must politely wend one's way through the
in-your-face retail space.

Regarding exposure, at the fair Alice are poised to make up for lost time:
they'll be spotlighting Belgian rap singer and graffiti artist Pablo Sozyone
Gonzalez, with the entire outside of their booth to be taken up with one single
gritty red-and-black cartoon drawing, while the inside will feature not just
Sozyone, but the work of his like-minded posse and hiphop crew, the Overlords.
Meanwhile, back at the gallery, Alice have invited long-awaited Dave Kinsey,
who starting April 7 will fill the staid brick underground space with his
installations, assemblages, and angst-ridden cartoon visages. Showing Gonzalez and
Kinsey at the same time is quite felicitous: taken together, the two come off
as long-lost progeny of Gary Panter, with his bugged-out Jimbo character. And
stylistically, the work of the two is most appropriate for an art fair in
Belgium, with its long tradition of and respect accorded to comic strip art.

- John W (16.02.2006)

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